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Tracy Kidder may be America’s best nonfiction writer

November 2, 2009

Tracy Kidder3Amazon’s just-announced list of 10 best books for 2009 features Strength in What Remains, by Tracy Kidder, the Pulitzer-winning nonfiction writer who will be at Miami Book Fair International on Nov. 14.

No. 1 on Amazon’s list, is Colum McCann’s novel, Let the Great World Spin. For a complete list, visit Publishers Weekly. But it’s worth noting that David Small’s Stitches, an affecting graphic memoir of his bout with throat cancer as a boy, made the list, too.

Small will also be at Miami Book Fair International (1 p.m. on Nov. 14.). But we’ve already discussed Small and his work in this space, so let’s turn our attention to Kidder.

In Strength in What Remains, Kidder tells the story of Deogratias, a young medical student forced by ethnic violence to flee his native land of Burundi. Eventually he made his way to New York City, where, for awhile, he lived in Central Park. As Kidder says on his website:

“When I first heard Deo’s story, I had one simple thought: I would not have survived. I hoped in part to reproduce that feeling in recounting what seems to me a rich tale: an adventure story, a survival story, an immigrant’s story, a story of despair and determination, of evil and kindness. I also hoped to humanize what, to most westerners anyway, is a mysterious, little-known part of the world. But above all, I wanted to address the question of how one survives the torment of memories like Deo’s, memories with a distinctly ungovernable quality.”

Deogratias, reports Kidder, not only survived, but found purpose. Now an American citizen, he returns frequently to Burundi, where he has built a clinic and public health system in the ruins of a rural village. Still, Deogratias withholds his last name because Burundi remains a very dangerous place.

And Kidder has more than succeeded in capturing the essence of Deogratias’ story. In addition to making Amazon’s Top 10 list, the book has earned high praise at every turn. The Boston Globe calls it “heart-rending,” while Time Magazine says, “A tale of unspeakable barbarism and unshakeable strength.” And Ron Suskind, writing in The New York Times, declares:

“That 63-year-old Tracy Kidder may have just written his finest work — indeed, one of the truly stunning books I’ve read this year — is proof that the secret to memorable nonfiction is so often the writer’s readiness to be ­surprised.”

High praise indeed for an author who has been among the world’s elite nonfiction writers since winning the 1981 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for his breakout book, The Soul of a New Machine. Before that he wrote for The Atlantic Monthly, where three of his pieces have been called “among the finest reporting to come out of Vietnam” by the Dictionary of Literary Biography (Gale Research).

In the years since, Kidder has written about an impressive range of subjects, from education (Among Schoolchildren) to building his own home (House) to the darkness and charm of small-town America (Home Town) to the story of a doctor bringing medical care to the world’s poorest people (Mountains Beyond Mountains).

Kidder is more than a reporter, though. The strong narrative quality of his work makes him a genuine “literary journalist.” As he’s observed in a 1994 essay, “In fiction, believability may have nothing to do with reality or even plausibility. It has everything to do with those things in nonfiction. I think that the nonfiction writer’s fundamental job is to make what is true believable.”

Don’t miss the chance to meet one of the worlds greatest living nonfiction writers. At Miami Book Fair International, Sat., Nov. 14, 3 p.m. Free.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. rachel permalink
    November 2, 2009 3:01 pm

    I have never read Kidder, and even more I admit that I have never even heard of him. But it seems like he has written some great stuff, so I will have to rectify that situation.

    But haven’t we already decided that Amazon is evil and therefore we shouldn’t care about their top 10 lists. There are plenty of others.

  2. Candice Simmons permalink
    November 2, 2009 4:19 pm

    I agree with Rachel, Chauncey Mabe, all the Kidder books sound wonderful. And Kudos to Deogratias for building a health clinic in Burundi!!

  3. DeeBishoff permalink
    November 3, 2009 2:50 pm

    I agree, Rachel, Amazon is certainly evil and we shouldn’t pay any attention to their top 10. All we need to do is continue to read Chauncey’s blogs for his reviews.

  4. Doreen Christensen permalink
    November 3, 2009 8:11 pm

    I look forward to Kidder’s visit to Miami later this month.

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